Sunday 24 March 2019

Get the vaccine and avoid the misery of being hit by flu

Doctor's Orders

Influenza is one of the nastiest and commonest respiratory infections that spreads during winter
Influenza is one of the nastiest and commonest respiratory infections that spreads during winter

Almost as many people die from flu each year as are killed on our roads. So take steps to protect yourself.

Dr Ciara Kelly

Doctors are a lot like fruit-pickers. We're pretty much seasonal workers, with the summer being relatively quiet work-wise, compared with the winter. The winter months ravage the respiratory system; so common colds, bronchitis, sinusitis and pneumonia all rear their ugly heads, sending people in their droves to the GP for tinctures and potions. I'm starting the campaign to bring back summer here.

Influenza is one of the nastiest and commonest respiratory infections that spreads during winter with the flu season running roughly from October through until March. The flu is nothing like the common cold. It lasts longer and hits harder ­- often with ten days of aches and pains, high temperatures, headaches, sore throat, cough and malaise. So when people tell you they have the flu when they have the sniffles - they don't!

It can also become complicated by secondary infections such as pneumonia or even meningitis, and every year three to four hundred people in Ireland will die from it or its complications. That's not a million miles away from the numbers killed on our roads and it's a significant number of lives.

Most of us do okay with this winter onslaught, shaking off the slings and arrows of influenza and chest infections reasonably well - but that all changes for the old, the young, those with chronic illnesses or pregnant and of course smokers. Within these groups their ability to fight infection is less and people often struggle with these illnesses, becoming far sicker, for far longer.

Our respiratory system is not complicated. Our lungs are two big spongy filters that air passes through, giving oxygen to the blood and expelling carbon dioxide from the tissues. When those filters become clogged with phlegm, mucous, fluid or the sludgy, toxic tar from cigarettes, they don't work properly and we get breathing difficulties. Ireland, with its damp climate and major prevalence of asthma, has a large number of patients especially vulnerable to respiratory problems, and for those of you in that category, it's worth planning ahead to remain healthy this winter.

The flu vaccine is a must for anyone in those vulnerable groups. Older people are quite good at taking up the vaccine and we achieve reasonable immunity among them but young people with diabetes, children with asthma or indeed pregnant women - for example - sometimes fall through the net, leaving many of them open to what can be a serious infection. Often they don't even realise they should be vaccinated. The pneumonia vaccine is also available for at-risk patients, and although you don't require it every year like a flu jab, it's worth enquiring with your GP whether or not it's indicated for you.

The other main thing you can do to look after yourself this winter is don't smoke. I could write endless articles on why you should stop smoking but in summary it's incredibly bad for your health and your respiratory system in particular. Half the people that do smoke will be killed by their cigarettes. Your older self - should you live to be old - will never thank you for anything more than giving up smoking and there has never been more help for this. Quit lines, ecigarettes, nicotine replacement therapy and medications to block the cravings are all available. So before you spend another winter coughing and getting sick, do yourself a favour and bin the fags.

The winter is nearly upon us and people get sicker in these cold dark months. So this year let's make it all about log fires and woolly jumpers, not sore throats and racking coughs. Do what you can to protect yourself and avoid seeing people like me this winter. Get vaccinated. Your health is my wealth - but in this case, I'm happy to take one for the team.

@ciarakellydoc

Sunday Independent

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